Thursday, January 26, 2012

Extreme Temperatures

by Conroy

Two of the most viewed posts on this blog are the “Perfect Climate” posts from last January (Part 1 here and Part 2 here). The whole point of those posts was to identify the “perfect” climate by reviewing the average – the normal – temperatures (daily mean, diurnal variation, seasonal differences, etc.) for hundreds of locations around the United States. During the extensive research for those writings, as I spent many many hours poring over temperature data, I became curious in the opposite, not the normal, but extreme temperatures.

In particular, I wondered what the high and low temperatures were across the entire country on any given day. How hot does the hottest place get in summer or the coldest in winter (and vice versa)? Surely it would be interesting to know this bit of trivia. It took a little searching, but fortunately, I found this exact information published by the National Weather Service (for populated places). Unfortunately, it’s published one day at a time with only the previous couple of days of national highs and lows listed. Also, for whatever reason, the NWS only publishes this information for the continental U.S., no Alaska or Hawaii (or for that matter, no Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, etc.). Based on the lower 48’s extreme temperatures, Hawaii may occasionally have the nation’s warmest weather, but Alaska would almost certainly claim the coldest temperatures on most days (October to April anyway).

I patiently compiled the daily U.S. high and low temperatures (and the corresponding location) over the last year (January 22, 2011 to January 21, 2012). Some would call this obsessive or silly or strange, to which I can offer no really good rejoinder. But I did it, and crunching the numbers I found some interesting things to note (all temperature values in degrees Fahrenheit):

Extreme Temperature Facts

Bullhead City - likely on a hot day
Highest high.  On back-to-back summer afternoons, August 24 and 25, in Bullhead City, Arizona, the thermometer hit a suffocating 119 degrees. Bullhead City is located in the heart of the Mohave Desert along the Colorado River about 90 miles south of Las Vegas. The 119 degree temperature is actually seven degrees below Bullhead City’s record high of 126 degrees (126!). There were fourteen other days when the national high was at least 115 degrees, and all but one of those recordings was unsurprisingly taken in the desert southwest (Arizona and California).

Let me digress to discuss record high temperatures. The highest recorded temperature in North America, and the second highest ever recorded on Earth, is 134 degrees at Furnace Creek in Death Valley, California on July 10, 1913. That was nearly a century ago, and I have no idea who was reading that temperature, how the thermometer was calibrated, or whether it was even set-up right. Call me a skeptic, but 134 degrees in the shade seems rather high even for a record high temperature. Similarly, the highest ever recorded temperature on Earth – 136 degrees – was recorded in the Sahara at Aziziya, Libya on September 13, 1922. This 90-year-old recording is in dispute. If it is indeed inaccurate, what is the real highest temperature recorded in modern times?

Friday, January 20, 2012

The God Particle

by Conroy

Part of the 17-mile-long LHC particle accelerator
Late last year there was breathless excitement within the physics community as several experiments conducted by CERN [1] at the Large Hadron Collider [2] under Geneva seemed to hint at the presence of a fundamental, and as yet entirely theoretical, particle: the Higgs boson. What is this particle and why did these experiments so energize physicists? The short, simple answer is that the Higgs boson is the particle associated with the Higgs field, which is hypothesized to be a ubiquitous quantum “field”. Think of it as a force or condition throughout all of space that matter interacts with. It is theorized that Higgs bosons interact with other fundamental particles (electrons, quarks, etc.) to give them mass. If detected, the Higgs boson would further validate the so called Standard Model of particle physics, one of the core theories of how the universe (the fundamental particles and forces) is structured.

The news from CERN quickly spread to the general news media and Newsweek jumped to exclaim on a cover headline that the experiments hinted at, “The Meaning of the Universe.” Other publications picked up on the Higgs boson’s nickname as “the God particle”. These headlines and reactions create the impression that this discovery, if confirmed [3], would explain many of the remaining questions in theoretical physics and provide the answers to those eternal questions that have puzzled mankind for millennia. So would it?

The Profound Questions
The Higgs boson would explain why particular particles have a specific mass. Mass is a fundamental feature of matter and explaining how mass “works” would be a tremendous breakthrough. The results would also be important in the understanding of mass-less particles like photons. But the discovery would hardly answer the even more fundamental questions about the nature of the universe, such as:
  • What is the universe?
  • Where did it come from?
  • Why does it have the structure and forces that it does?
  • Is there anything outside of the universe?
  • What is the universe’s fate?
Let’s come back to these.

Everything to (Practically) Nothing
The Milky Way
There’s a terrific website – – that provides an interactive depiction of the size of the universe and everything in it. It’s a way to conceptualize just how inconceivably vast the totality of the universe is, and how absurdly infinitesimal are its fundamental parts. Let’s take a quick scan of this reality. Make a fist and stare at it, image it is the entire universe and you’re looking at it like God:
  • Our universe is estimated to be 93 billion light years across. Light, traveling at 186,000 miles per second, would take 93 billion years to cover the current expanse of the universe.
  • We can observe about 14 billion of these light years, the approximate time that light has had to travel since time began (14 billion years ago, give or take). The universe inflated faster than light a short time after the Big Bang.
  • We zoom way way in to our galaxy, the Milky Way, one out of hundreds of billions, and a mere 120,000 light years across, 0.0000086 times the distance of the observable universe.
  • We focus further, much further, to our solar system, which including the Oort Cloud, is 0.15 light years across, 1.5 trillion kilometers, or 0.0000013 times the distance of the whole Milky Way.
  • We continue closer and see the dim Sun from Pluto, nearly six billion kilometers distant, 0.004 times the diameter of the Oort Cloud.
  • We pass Jupiter, 800 million kilometers from the Sun, 0.125 times the distance from Pluto to the Sun.
  • We see the Sun, shining nuclear-bomb bright, one star out of hundreds of billions in our galaxy, nearly 1.4 million kilometers across, 0.0018 the distance to Jupiter.
  • We close in on the Earth, one planet of likely hundreds of billions in the Milky Way, almost 13,000 kilometers in diameter, just a spec compared to the Sun.
  • We see China spread 4,000 kilometers across the Earth’s surface.
  • We see Mount Everest standing nearly 9 kilometers tall.
  • We see a man standing on the summit, less than 2 meters (6 feet) tall.
  • He steps on a snowflake a centimeter (.01 meters) across.
  • And wishes on an eyelash 0.1 millimeters (.0001 meters) thick, just about as thin as the human eye can detect.
  • His heart vigorously pumps blood through his veins and he rapidly exhales moist air, red blood cells and air droplets, both about 0.00001 meters across.
  • The moisture includes water molecules 0.0000000003 (3x10^-10) meters across.
  • Each molecule includes two hydrogen atoms, each just 0.00000000003 (3x10^-11) meters across.
  • The nucleus of those atoms is 0.00000000000001 (1x10^-14) meters across.
  • The proton inside the nucleus is 0.000000000000001 (1x10^-15) meters across.
  • The quarks [4] inside the proton (and the electron circling the nucleus) are 0.000000000000000001 (1x10^-18) meters across.
  • Preons, the building blocks of quarks are 0.000000000000000000001 (1x10^-21) meters across.
  • Neutrinos, the ghostly particles the fly virtually untouched through all of matter are smaller yet, just 0.000000000000000000000001 (1x10^-24) meters across.
  • And finally to the smallest of the smallest, the theoretical strings and Plank length (the “minimum” length of anything) at 0.00000000000000000000000000000000001 (1x10^-35) meters across.

I doubt the human mind can truly conceptualize the size of anything on scales larger than the solar system or smaller than a cell (I can’t anyway). We can see the Sun and have sent space probes past Pluto. We can see the thickness of a piece of paper and understand its even smaller constituent parts. Yet the great unanswered questions lie beyond these narrow boundaries of observation and intuition.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Short Trip to Paradise

by Conroy

The famous Pitons
I gazed at the gibbous moon gleaming low in the afternoon sky. I was on a south-flying plane looking east over the cobalt Caribbean. From 38,000 feet the sea seems as static as a painting; the rippled surface, flecked by bright white wave crests, appears fixed like stone. The sporadic clouds cast a patchwork of dark size-less shadows onto the water. The daytime sky looks different from high altitude, the blue purer, the dome of the sky a darker azure than can ever be seen from the ground. When I travel by plane I always feel like my fellow passengers and I are nowhere, lost for a time between origin and destination. We’re not where we started or where we’re going. This perception is powerful during night flights, especially over water, where only blackness can be viewed from the windows. But it’s true during the day as well; flying high above the world, detached from the slow fade of the terrestrial reality far below. And it’s emphasized when the place left behind and the place traveled to are drastically different – as they were today.

Our 757 took off from Atlanta, the world’s busiest airport, on a sub-freezing January morning. We would soon be landing at a notably quiet runway, and into the endless tropical summer. My girlfriend and I were taking a vacation to the tiny island nation of St. Lucia. This would be my first time in the Caribbean, the first time staying at an “all-inclusive” resort, and I was eager for the experience. We had flown over Puerto Rico a half hour earlier and were already settled into our gradual descent. French Martinique was green and beautiful below. Then St. Lucia appeared. Our flight path was taking us right over the island – northwest to southeast. We were lower now and I had a good view of the island, so modest in size that I could almost take it all in: the semi-dense development in the northwest; a three-masted sailboat in the cove of Pigeon Island; a cruise ship nestled into Castries’ (the capital) small harbor; bright blue water and light sand along the Caribbean coast; the green, lush, empty, rugged interior; a fleeting glimpse of the strange, picturesque, and famous pyramids of the Pitons in the southeast; and finally our figure-eight descent into Hewanorra International Airport at the south end of the island.

St. Lucia
St. Lucia is a dot in the ocean. It is one of the many Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles, and lies smack in the path of the easterly trade winds. If you’ve never experienced the trade winds, as I hadn’t until I stepped off the plane onto the Hewanorra tarmac, imagine a 15 mph breeze – that never stops; a giant planet fan stuck in the on position. It’s no wonder sailors of old used these winds to cross the Atlantic. The island is just 258 square miles, just a tad larger than Chicago, and is home to a little more than 170,000 people. There are only 17 countries smaller in size and only 18 with fewer people (in both cases many of those smaller, less populated countries are fellow Caribbean islands). The country has a colorful history after European settlement in the mid-seventeenth century, changing hands between the British and French fourteen times (seven each), until the British established firm control following Napoleon’s first abdication and exile. The island remained under the Union Jack until gaining late independence from the disintegrating British Empire in 1979. That makes the country just a little older than me, and it remains in the Commonwealth of Nations. Upon viewing the Queen’s face [1] on the East Caribbean dollar – the official currency of St. Lucia and surrounding countries – I said to a local: “I see the Queen is still on your currency,” in a casual effort to gauge the local attitude towards their former rulers. I received a matter-of-fact explanation that the country was part of the Commonwealth, which didn’t tell me much.

The aboriginal population was decimated after contact with Europeans, and African slaves were imported in large numbers to work the island’s numerous plantations. Today the population is almost entirely black. English is the official language, but a French-Creole is the local vernacular. From observation, the locals speak English to tourists and Creole amongst themselves (more on this later).

The island is also obviously poor. The per capita income is less than $6,000 a year, a meager sum. Contrast that to Barbados a hundred miles to the southeast, a nation of similar size but with personal income four times larger. The dearth of wealth was obvious from the bland, functional airport and the languishing buildings on the way to our resort, a drive which fortunately took all of about three minutes because our resort, Coconut Bay Beach Resort (hereafter known as Coconuts), has the terrific convenience of being literally within sight of the main runway.

Coconuts from above
Coconuts is situated on a large plot along the Atlantic Ocean, maybe 100 acres in total, at the southwest corner of the island. According to our inbound flight attendants, it was a former Club Med and also the preferred layover hotel for pilots and flight crew (no doubt because of its proximity to the airport). It’s both the only resort on the Atlantic – windward – side of the island, and the only resort situated in the far south. This means the surf is constantly choppy and the water has a distinctly teal color, no clear turquoise to be seen. We were greeted with a glass of champagne, settled in our room, and took a walk around. The resort is comprised of two wings, one for families and one for couples (which is where we were staying), all with ocean view rooms. It includes half a dozen bars spread out over the complex [2], a main dining area, three specialty restaurants, a night club, main stage for nightly entertainment [3], at four sprawling pools, a small waterpark, tennis courts, and a tiny paintball battlefield. There was also a reception building and seaside gazebo (where a wedding occurred during our stay). Of course you can’t overlook the mile or so of breezy beachfront and fields of palm trees. In general, the buildings are older but they were well maintained and the rooms and common areas were clean, so I was happy. The large high ceiling-ed lobby was the first floor of the main central building, and it was open on the entrance and pool/ocean side to the elements. No need for walls and windows in a perfect climate. There was an “adults only” section with a private pool, bar, and beach, which my girlfriend and I planned to take full advantage of. Is this similar to countless other Caribbean resorts? Perhaps, but it nicely met my expectations.